Microbial Oasis

project and solo exhibition at Kunstfort Vijfhujzen


A project and exhibition that deals with the idea that biological structures like proteins and viruses as an economical resource, as weapons and as a blurry line between people and data. For the project I scraped the pngs and jpegs from Protein Data Bank, an online open platform for scientific models of proteins, enzymes and virus shapes. Together with an artist-programmer collaborator Maximilian Kreis we trained a StyleGAN2 algorithm on the dataset (around 12000 images) and as an outcome got a variety of patterns many of which closely approached how a real model of a microbiological structure would look like. Doing this I wanted to synthesise models that could be realistic enough to suggest a possibility of generating new biological forms with code, and look into broader implications of doing that. The unexpected result of the training was that some 0.1% of the images appeared to look like faces, despite there being zero faces or face-like images in the training data. This to me meant that the invisible structures of StyleGAN2 itself have certain pattern processing biases that come through regardless of the nature of the training data.

I took these results and developed a series of physical works and a video installation for an exhibition at Kunstfort Vijfhuizen, a 18th century military arsenal and fort, in the Netherlands in May 2021. The idea for the installation was to speculate how a 21st century digital biobank could be seen as a military arsenal where biological matter and digital models of it could be open to being sold or weaponised. After discovering the faces in the training results, the exhibition became a portrait show that depicted bio-digital profiles of the algorithm itself, people who wrote it, its training data and the biological structures it synthesised. The video was shaped as a petri dish, with morphing protein structures growing and mutating like bacteria. Alphabetical letters and phrases (like “biological unknown unknown) flow through the video, referencing single letter codes for amino acids and Google’s parent company Alphabet that announced its Alphafold2 protein folding algorithm in late 2020. I see this project as not fully finished and want to continue it within the residency, possibly totally rethinking my approach.

The exhibition at Kunstfort was curated by Zippora Elders.